Forest Lake’s Matt Wallner makes big impression in Twins debut

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CLEVELAND — Matt Wallner was “pretty sure,” when he connected with the Shane Bieber pitch that it was a home run — the first of his career.

Bieber had more certainty.

“I knew it off the bat,” the Guardians’ ace quipped as he walked past Wallner doing an interview with reporters.

In the middle of a 5-1 loss to the Guardians with little else to write home about on Saturday afternoon, the rookie outfielder from Forest Lake debuted, collecting the hit he had been waiting a lifetime for. That eighth-inning home run was also the first hit of his career, and he recorded it in front of a crowd that included his parents, fiancée, brother, his girlfriend and some friends from college.

“That was pretty cool. That was pretty rewarding,” Wallner said. “The biggest part was just making sure I touched every base, because that’d be pretty embarrassing if I didn’t.”

Wallner did indeed manage to touch ‘em all on his way home to an excited Twins dugout. The home run, which he hit out to center field, came on the first pitch of his third at-bat.

Prior to that, he had grounded out and struck out in his first two trips to the plate against Bieber.

“I was missing pitches a little bit the first two (at-bats) and just made a little adjustment in my third,” he said. “That was needed to do that, to be able to hit that last pitch. It’s rewarding when you’re able to do that.”

Twins senior director of team travel Mike Herman then made the walk from the press box out to center field to do some negotiating with the fan who caught the ball, eventually settling on a trade after a long bartering session. Afterwards, Wallner joked that they “had to sell the Capitol Building,” to get his milestone ball back.

Wallner, who had traveled to Cleveland as a member of the taxi squad, was activated before the game when the Twins placed Max Kepler on the injured list with a right wrist sprain.

Kepler, who has also been dealing with a hip issue and a shin contusion in addition to his wrist injury, has not played since last Sunday. Manager Rocco Baldelli said he will be shut down from baseball activities for a couple of days because he was not trending in the right direction. But the goal is to get him back on the field before the season ends.

“If Kep could have stayed active, believe me, we would have kept him active, even if he would have missed a couple more days,” Baldelli said. “If we could have slipped him into the lineup, we would have done that. It really appeared it wasn’t going to be something that was in the cards.”

And that opened the door for Wallner, a Forest Lake High School grad and the Twins’ No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline to finally get the call.

This season between Double and Triple-A, Wallner had hit .277 with a 953 OPS and 27 home runs. He also has been walking more as a result of changing his approach to try to be more patient, taking 97 of them in 128 games and posting a .412 on-base percentage.

“When he makes a leap to a new level, he adjusts and he finds what the opposing pitches are doing to him, and I think he has really started to do that well at the Triple-A level,” Baldelli said. “He has had good at-bats. He’s gotten on base a little bit. He does what he always does when he hits the ball — he hits it hard, so he’s always been part of the conversation.”

BRIEFLY

Jorge Polanco was removed from his rehab game early on Friday after experiencing some discomfort in his knee. The Twins were evaluating him at Target Field and giving him further treatment before deciding what his next steps will be. … Pitcher Drew Strotman was designated for assignment to make room for Wallner on the 40-man roster.

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